Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground


Originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 67, printed February 3. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Ana Edwards

The Life & Legacy of Enslaved Virginian Emily Winfree – Dr. Jan Meck and Virginia Refo

The History Press, 2021; 158 pages; $21.99

The book that Jan Meck and Virginia Refo have written is the first study of the life of Emily Winfree, a Virginia-born African woman who lived from 1834 to 1865 enslaved in Petersburg and Chesterfield Country and, after Emancipation, in Manchester until her death in 1919. Five of her children are attributed to Dr. David C. Winfree of Chesterfield, who purchased Emily Winfree and her two young daughters in 1860. After Emancipation, he gave her a house and property in town and 109 acres of land he owned in Chesterfield before dying in 1867. It was this property that gave Emily Winfree – a domestic worker who could not read – the little stability she could maintain for her children in their free life.

Using a combination of primary records, interviews with Ms. Winfree’s descendants and imagined conversations, Meck and Rego have compiled an empathetic biography with a great deal of detail about Ms. Winfree’s attempts to leverage the property to secure her family finances. The authors also chose to envelope Ms. Winfree’s struggles in a well-researched history of the rise and fall of Reconstruction in Virginia and how it impacted what opportunities were actually available to newly-freed Black people like Ms. Winfree. Land ownership could make all the difference from a life of impoverished laboring, but it was not a guarantee. In this reader’s opinion one of the strongest themes is that of charting the progress of each generation of Ms. Winfree’s descendants – from illiteracy to educated, from laboring to educators and entrepreneurs. From a single woman, generations of family survived a world of poverty, segregation and arbitrary violence.

Rescued in 2002 from a planned demolition at its original location in Manchester, Ms. Winfree’s post-war cottage now sits on blocks and I-beams next to the Devil’s Half-Acre in Shockoe Bottom, looking weary, but somehow hopeful.

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